30-Day No Sugar Challenge Prep Week

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The COVID-19 pandemic is now into its fourth year. There are many concerns of how the pandemic has impacted our health and in a negative way. Weight gain and adopting unhealthy habits has certainly been my experience. In addition to rebooting my relationship with alcohol this past “Dry January,” I now want to take a closer look at my relationship with sugar and how I got started on my first 30-Day No Sugar Challenge.

My First Memories of Sugar

My first memories of sweet treats included candies called Black Babies, Wax Bottles, Marshmallow Strawberries, Pixy Stix, and Fun Dip. Many of these treats were found in convenience stores and cost pennies or nickels. Coming out of the corner store with a small paper bag filled with candies was always a fun and exciting time. Little did we know at the time that consuming too much of these sweet treats could cause tooth decay and cavities. Something we learned when we got a tooth ache or went to the dentist for a check-up.

As an adult, I have to admit I still love those Marshmallow Strawberries. My tastebuds have now matured and I have a very close attachment to dark chocolate (dark chocolate is good for you, right?). These sugary treats make me happy. Most sweet foods have a connection to mood. Cake, cookies, ice cream, pop, and other sweet food products are usually consumed when we want to either “treat ourselves” (reward to make us feel good), celebrate, socialize, or commiserate. “Pop and chip parties” have always had a very positive meaning to me. Still to this day I think of pop and chips in a fond way. Sugar and sweeteners (artificial or otherwise) appear to have an emotional component connected to them. “Instant gratification” can be achieved by simply going to the ice cream parlour and getting a sugar rush. We also know there are feel-good hormones related to the consumption of sugar. The Cleveland Clinic explains why we love sugar so much.

“Our brains are wired to enjoy things which make us happy,” says Taylor. “Sugar, in particular, releases brain chemicals, like serotonin, that make us feel good.” This leaves us wanting to experience that good feeling over and over again, day after day.

Cleveland Clinic

Emotional Hunger and Real Hunger

I have learned there are two types of hungers. One is emotional (a.ka. brain or head) hunger and the other is real hunger. Many of us eat when we aren’t really physically hungry and needing fuel and nutrition to feed our bodies. The Brisbane Obesity Clinic gives a list of reasons why we eat when we are emotionally hungry.

“Emotional hunger, also known as head hunger, refers to eating in response to an emotion or a habit. This type of hunger usually comes on suddenly, and people tend to crave a particular food (usually sweet, salty or a comfort food).

  • Eating on autopilot whether you are watching TV or sitting on the couch. Here, you associate a habit or activity with food even though you are not hungry.
  • Do you automatically grab something at the servo when you stop for fuel?
  • Do you eat something at a party only because it is offered to you/is free?
  • Do you get the free muffin when you buy your coffee, even though you didn’t want the muffin in the first place?
  • Do you order an entrée or dessert when dining out with friends just because others have ordered it?
  • Do you tend to eat when bored, stressed or sad?

All of these external cues are driven by head hunger, and have nothing to do with being truly hungry. In summary, head hunger has social and emotional triggers.” 

Brisbane Obesity Clinic

Sugar Addiction and Detox

In order to prepare for my 30-Day No Sugar Challenge (NSC), I did a lot of research online. I started by reading this article on Healthline called, What are 30-Day No Sugar Challenges? All You Need to Know. I put an announcement out on social media and invited any other people who wanted to do a NSC to message me. Six other ladies joined me! I created a chat group on Facebook Messenger as well as a private Facebook Group. I joined the private SugarDetox Support Group as well for more tips and support.

The first week I called “Prep Week.” We started reading food labels and learning all about the different names of sugar and sugar substitutes. It was a week of discovery. I read about other people’s experiences with this type of challenge and how it reset their sugar-craving urges and addictions. Their stories of weight loss, blood sugar regulation, and generalized feelings of well-being were very inspiring. I also learned there is a small proportion of the population who have a bonafide sugar addiction and their best defence is to avoid all sugar and sugar substitutes. Similar to the Cleveland Clinic’s position on sugar and feel-good hormones, the Wellness Retreat Recovery Center explains in “Sugar and Dopamine: The Link Between Sweets and Addiction,” that “there is a link between sugar and dopamine, the same chemical that releases in the body during illicit drug use. What this means is that sugar and drug addiction are similar in a lot of surprising ways.” The instant spike in dopamine and serotonin feel-good hormones are the main reasons why we love sugar so much and why we need a continuous supply. The more we rely on sugar to do this for us, the less our brain does it for ourselves.

Added sugar, also known as free sugar, has no nutritional value and eating foods and drinks with high sugar content can cause an excessive amount of “empty calories.” We can live without it. But for some reason the North American diet is full of it. It comes in almost all packaged and processed foods. There is actually a “Bliss Point” of sugary sweetness that is a marker for how much sugar people like in their food. “Hidden sugar” can be found in products such as gravy mixes, granola bars, mayonnaise, and luncheon meats. Even McDonald’s products have sugar. For example, their world-famous french fries have dextrose, which is another form of sugar. Maltodextrin is in many packaged foods we have in our pantry!

Natural Sugar is Okay

Some foods, such as fruits, milk and vegetables, contain natural sugar, which is OK to consume. What you should watch out for is processed sugars and sweeteners. These “hidden” sugars are in foods such as crackers, drinks, pasta sauces and even pizza. When checking the ingredients list, look for the words “malt,” “syrup” and those ending in “-ose.”

Mayo Clinic Health System

Sugar Danger

Eaten in high quantities sugar can be detrimental to our health. In a Harvard article called, “The Sweet Danger of Sugar,” we learn that there is a link between high added sugar consumption and increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

This CNN article called Study Finds 45 Negative Health Effects of Added Sugar is very eye-opening. Our recommended daily “free” or added sugar allowance, as suggested by three leading organizations, is 25 grams or about 6 teaspoons per day, as explained below:

“The findings — in combination with existing guidance from the World Health Organization, World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research — suggest people should limit free sugar intake to less than 25 grams, or about 6 teaspoons, per day. There’s that much sugar in 2 ½ chocolate chip cookies, 16 ounces of fruit punch and about 1 ½ tablespoons of honey. A doughnut has around 15 to 30 grams of sugar, according to the Cleveland Clinic. 
The authors also recommend reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to less than one serving (about 200 to 355 milliliters) per week. That’s the equivalent of an up to 12-ounce soda, Aggarwal said via email.”

– Kristen Rogers, CNN

How sugar actually affects heart health is not completely understood, but it appears to have several indirect connections. For instance, high amounts of sugar overload the liver. “Your liver metabolizes sugar the same way as alcohol, and converts dietary carbohydrates to fat,” says Dr. Hu. Over time, this can lead to a greater accumulation of fat, which may turn into fatty liver disease, a contributor to diabetes, which raises your risk for heart disease.

Harvard Health Publishing

Sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners can be found in many so-called “sugar-free” foods. Consuming these added sweeteners in the short-term appear to be safe, however, research is ongoing.

Researchers are checking to see if sugar substitutes affect cravings for sweets, the way people feel hunger and how the body manages blood sugar.

Mayo Clinic

Find Your Why

To prepare for this month without sugar (what we call “Prep Week”), myself and a few other ladies have been learning about sugar, reading food and drink labels, and talking to others about our upcoming no-sugar challenge. We have come up with our individualized plans for how we want to tackle our challenge. We all have to decide what will be doable for each of us, individually. We have learned there is no “one size fits all” approach. Awareness of, and reducing the amount of sugar we consume is the key. Avoiding ALL sugar is next to impossible. We all have our own reasons for doing this challenge and we are encouraged to “Find our why.” I will report back after my month without the sweet stuff.

Angela G. Gentile, MSW, RSW


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